Issue # 188 - Chris Benjamin

Chris Benjamin


Mirrors on which dust has fallen by Jeff Bursey (Glentrees, Singapore: Verbivoracious Press, 2015, 344 pp., $22.99).



Jeff Bursey’s Mirrors on which dust has fallen dissects the fictional town of Bowmount, sort of an Everytown, Atlantic Canada. It is late summer, somewhere in the 1990s. Great change is afoot, creating considerable consternation among the townspeople. The church is embroiled in a sex-abuse scandal, cops are being murdered by animal-rights terrorists, art and media are relentlessly critical and pay no respect to taboo as government officials’ most useful function is as a topic of gossip.

    In essence, traditional sources of authority have lost their relevance. Mirrors is fascinated with how the people respond, and for the most part they are adrift. The large cast of characters are “that despised group of non-believers” who “do not appear at rallies for the city, or vote much of the time; not rich, they do not press their viewpoint on anyone through newsletters … concentrating instead on making it through a day and a night without losing too much hope that tomorrow might not be as bad, all the while praying, sometimes consciously, for a different future if a better one is not possible.”

      They are perhaps the most likely to challenge crumbling authority, and yet they feel powerless. The more traditional folks in town watch these outsiders as closely as they watch one another. “Stan explained that Fred had painted flames coming out of the door and front windows of his house, a lark, and people took it wrongly, calling the fire department so often they called the Council, and jeez, who could fight Mayor Runciman and stupid councillors who couldn’ttake a joke and wanted to poke their noses into everybody’s business?”

     Their dilemmas reflect, on a miniature scale, the bigger stories in the news they all follow so closely. Loyola, who is as close as Bursey comes to creating a main character, is oppressed by his job and boss, a woman with a limited locus of power into which he happens to fall. She is somewhat totalitarian, stressed and obsessed with the work of Moscati-Mann Clothing International. People in towns work and therefore much of Mirrors happens in workplaces, including art galleries, a diner, factories, a bar, a radio station and the church. But Loyola’s purpose is more to do with youthful exuberance, hungry desire and sexuality. His workplace only gets in the way of his passion and lust.

     And lust is everywhere — for sex, for artistic perfection — making life an interesting challenge for these rogues. It has rocked and defamed the Catholic church, so much so that Duncan Lonegan, a lifelong lover of Christ, finds himself speaking out in his quiet way against the institution. In an amusingly bland scene reminiscent of any workplace meeting, the priests lament their bad press coverage, potential lawsuits if a renovation goes wrong, and the optics of eulogizing a fellow priest. They are image conscious and fear new competition from a revivalist parade centred around an obscure saint. “…The parishioners must be stopped from going to see St. Lucy, whose life story isn’t known anyway, an actress portraying her, exposed naked in a brothel, verbally abused, set on fire for preserving her virginity, and then run through the neck with a sword. They wouldn’t use real fire, would they?” One of these priests quests to conduct his own perfect sermon, with no mistakes, not even from the alter boys.

     Whereas Bursey’s first novel, Verbatim, skewered politicians, Mirrors satirizes the common person, but sympathetically; we’re all included, we’re all fools, and in a specifically Atlantic Canadian way. We’re downright provincial, as Bowmount’s archbishop, a Come From Away, observes: “They’re such damn touchy people, these Bowmountians, infected with a ridiculous pride about this rundown pile. If they found a spot Neville Bowmount had said he’d like to visit but never did, they’d erect a public fountain within a week.”

     And whereas Verbatim, appropriate to its subject matter, was written in parliamentary-debate transcripts, the style of  Mirrors reminds me of a Robert Altman film, panning through snippets of conversation about religion, work, identity [“You think all I am is a strike, a protest, a negotiation? I’m a union man in everything, brother, let me tell you that. Or I try to be.”], art [“It’s great, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. You do it, then you go home.”], gender relations [“The nineties man is a confused guy, he’s lost when it comes to how to treat women.”], sport, violence, sex-love-lust and kinks, technical automation and its impact on labour. Along the way, the camera catches telltale symbols of the characters’ values, funny bits of graffiti, signs, things written on mugs or t-shirts, the idioms and art people create in everyday objects and places. Bursey himself, through omniscient writing, is like a character actor or impressionist, fully inside the heads of his many, diverse characters and adept at a quick line contrasting not only different perspectives, but different loci of thought. “We’ll ask Sam, he knows that stuff. Alistair would have offered an opinion, but no one asked for it.”

     Signals get dropped or overridden. Thoughts break off. A conversation is interrupted by the radio and we’re suddenly in the head of the disc jockey (a trick that is reversed near the end of the book). Or the narrative drifts among conversations by a multitude of characters in a lunchroom. Characters are named in passing and they come and go. There is little in the way of back story. In this way the fourth wall is subtly broken, we are always aware that our attentions are being directed somewhere, without giving us many clues as to what we are seeing at any given moment. We don’t always get to know these people in depth. But the panoramas eventually give us a picture of a place and its people, a detailed, hyperrealist  scene of the multitudes.

     As a result, we often see people at their worst. Confirming the archbishop’s sense of provincialism is the occasional racism that characters from all social classes display: “What I see is this, that the people from away, those people, they come in, and who can blame them for wanting things they’ve never seen, when they’ve no trade and nothing we can use here, don’t you see? They immediately try to get the other fellow’s goods, easy as pie, no work, no employment record, and meantime the government is paying them as, huh-huh! refugees! We’re paying the criminals to rob us.”

     And as by the more educated Philip Lewis, news director at the town’s main radio station: “…People coming in from shithole countries, and what do you end up with when they start mingling with Canadians? Someone like Karla O’Reilly, some Afro-Gaelic-Canadian, or whatever she calls herself … Bowmount’s full of Turks, Lebanese, Ghanians [sic], Rumanians, and even a handful of East Timorese…”

     Those statements are the most stark examples of a general fear of change that permeates the novel. Some of the most revealing moments happen as the large staff contingent at the radio station deal with management’s decision to increase automation, with the sales manager and station manager trying to convince them it’s a good thing: “It’s like a talk show, without a host! Oswald, it’s a talk show with the rascal multitude as the hosts.” But privately, “Grimly [the station manager] thought of automation, and the nephews. Who the hell was protecting anybody?” This is a question that brings together some of Bursey’s seemingly divergent themes —  automation, authority, cops being shot, priests being jailed and a general crumbling of authority.

     Time and again, the residents turn to love, perhaps as the purest form of human connection in order to face their fears. They are skeptical yet appreciative of its importance:


Is that why you can’t define love? Living from hand to mouth every day. Not every day, but sure you’ve had those days. Haven’t you? To their mutual surprise Ivy answered the question. —Yes, but to set the standard of how you’ll live by the worst days? —We’ve each got something unique that beats against our windowpanes at night. I have chaos, what do you have? —You didn’t answer me, about defining love. — It’s a rare thing, love.


     Despite their fears and desperate attempts to find comfort, the names of the final two chapters leave one with a sense that change doesn’t stop here. The penultimate chapter is called “Endings,” with the final installment called “A new cycle,” at which point the roof blows off of many Bowmountian secrets — especially sexual — around the same time as two controversial works of art show, one erotic and one deemed by some as sacrilegious. The reactions to these works tell us much about ourselves — some are dismissive, some intrigued. The press focuses on a physical confrontation between the two artists. When a prominent critic of the Catholic church dies and refuses to be buried in a cemetery with “priests who had been fornicators and paedophiles,” the author concludes that “It was clear everyone had changed natures in the last month.”

     I’m comfortable describing some of these events in brief because, should you consider reading this work (and you should), these and the many other events described in it prove to be less important than the diorama Bursey has constructed, so insightful because it is so like us.